Reading and Walking

Walking, Reading, and Reading about Walking

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24. Phil Smith, Mythogeography: A Guide to Walking Sideways, and “Crab Walking and Mythogeography”


In his essay “Walking Through Ruins,” part of the Ways of Walking anthology, cultural geographer Tim Edensor writes about the failure of linear narratives to adequately convey the experience of walking. “Stories that are fragmented, non-linear, impressionistic and contingent are better suited than traditional linear narratives to the experience of walking in ruins,” Edensor contends (137). I’m willing to bet that Edensor would like Phil Smith’s book Mythogeography: A Guide to Walking Sideways. It’s a deliberately fragmentary, iterative, playful, and non-linear text, one that both defines and performs the term “mythogeography.” (I’m betting that Edensor would like Smith’s book, but I know Smith likes Edensor’s essay: he cites it approvingly several times.) All of these qualities are going to make it difficult—well, impossible, actually—to summarize effectively, but I’m going to make the attempt, because although my own walking practice isn’t an example of mythogeography, it’s an important term in art walking, and there are aspects of mythogeography that I’d like to incorporate in my walks.

Mythogeography begins with a lengthy account of a walk Smith made, following in the footsteps of Charles Hurst, a man who, early in the twentieth century, set out to plant oak trees during a 200-mile walk in England. At first, I wasn’t sure that Hurst was real, or that he actually set out on that oak-planting expedition, and although the book Hurst wrote about the experience, The Book of the English Oak is real (I’ve ordered a copy, in fact), I’m not convinced that Hurst’s walk ended when his dog, Pontiflunk, was run over by a car. In fact, I’m not quite certain where the line between fiction and fact in Smith’s account might be, and that’s deliberate—it’s part of the point of mythogeography to construct what Smith describes as “limited myths” and other fictions about walking, and while walking. Smith’s account of his walk focuses on what he saw and experienced along the way, as well as on his interactions with other people. It’s also a performance text (at least, it identifies itself as such at its conclusion), which suggests one way of circulating or presenting the results of mythogeographic research: through performance, with one performance (the walk) leading to another (the talk). I find it interesting that Smith begins with an account of a solo walk, because the primary mythogeographic method, the “drift” or dérive, is a form of walking that tends to involve groups of pedestrians, and I wonder if that means that other solo walks could fall into this category. In any case, most of the mythogeographic techniques or practices described later in the book don’t seem to be related to solo walking, which makes the opening text seem rather unique. 

Smith’s story of walking is interrupted by footnotes as well, which refer to other walkers and/or writers, and otherwise comment on the experience. For example, he describes the walks of visual artists Richard Long and Hamish Fulton, as well as the circumambulation of Britain carried out by Chinese performance artist He Yun Chang, as “exceptionalist walks, solo and gargantuan,” and therefore somewhat exclusive (by which I think he means non- or anti-democratic) (24). Sometimes Smith’s references to other writers are frustrating, because he doesn’t identify specific sources: he suggests that Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari describe the qualities of the everyday as being resistant to power by their very nature, and therefore automatically subversive—an interesting idea, but I don’t know where it came from (probably their book A Thousand Plateaus, which I’m afraid that I’m going to have to add to my list—afraid, because it’s long and notoriously difficult) (35). Even if those references are somewhat oblique, he reveals the authors who have influenced him in the footnotes: Slavoj Žižek, Mike Pearson, Doreen Massey. He summarizes Massey’s ideas about space, for instance (95). Smith also comments on aspects of his walk that are theoretically or methodologically important; for instance, he describes his way of relating to others while walking as “practicing strangerhood, and suggests that it leads to civility from others (46). 

Following this example of mythogeography, the book begins to theorize this term—to explain what it means. It presents “the nearest to theory . . . that mythogeography has got so far” (108). Smith’s account of mythogeography here refuses to systematize it. Mythogeography, he writes, 

must always be a mixture of thoughts and actions, and not so much a theory, but a series of approaches, a set of modest survival strategies, a bran tub of perfigurative behaviours plus the honesty to say that no one knows what is going to happen. So this is more a toolbag of ideas for those wanting to create their own mythogeographical practice and less a guide to the philosophy that may one day strangle it. (110)

Mythogeography started in site-specific theatre (particularly the work of Wrights & Sites, the site-specific theatre group Smith has been involved with for years), in a struggle “to expose people to what was most immediate rather than what was distant and desired on behalf of others” (110). Rather than have actors perform in specific places, the goal of Wrights & Sites was to make those places perform themselves. 

Smith then presents an 18-point manifesto of mythogeography. It is an “experimental approach to the site of performance . . . as a space of multiple layers,” Smith writes (113). It is also “a geography of the body” that involves seeing the world “from multiple viewpoints at any one time,” and a philosophy of mobile perception that uses the senses to actively seek information and to perceive differences rather than objects (113). Its space “is neither bounded nor sliced by time, but is made up of trajectories, routes, lines of journey and cargo” and aspires to “a new, mobile architecture of exchange where strangers are changed into friends” (113). It is an exploratory practice that is “guided by its periphery” (114). It mythologizes the mythographer (114). It is a reaction against the labeling of “historic” places by the heritage industry and “agencies of national and municipal identity-making” (114), and it deliberately sets out to transform “quotidian spaces into sites of wonder” (115). Its “weapons against the monocular”—mythogeography is all about multiple perspectives—include “the politics and theatre of the everyday,” psychography (more about that in a moment), and “geological, archaeological and historiographical methods,” or at least parodies or reversals of such methods (115). Mythogeography is self-reflexive, because “it regards the mythogeographer, the performer and the activist as being just as much multiplicitous and questionable sites as the landscapes they move in” (115). It is part of a practice of disruptions and explorations by performers, walkers, urban explorers, and artists of the everyday (Smith provides a list of names of such people who are either exemplars or models) (115). It “uses techniques of collection, trespass and observation, and a mapping that upsets functional journeys,” and it sets out “to heighten or change perception” (116). “It subjects the layers of meaning in any place to a rigorous historiographical (or alternative and appropriate) interrogation, while connecting the diverse layers and exploiting the gaps between them as places of revelation and change,” while avoiding “scientific” aloofness and any collapse into “a monocular satire or a capitulation to safe and policed forms of eccentricity” (116). It practices a “hermeneutics of fear” and uses “a low-level paranoia” to test “the over-explanation of things” (116). It doesn’t “discriminate between respectable and non-respectable types of knowledge,” mixing together popular culture, trash, and autobiographical or non-rational associations, while reaching “for a poetics of the Spectacle” (one of many references Smith makes to Guy Debord’s book The Society of the Spectacle). Mythogeography studies dynamic forms and patterns of patterns. Its tool kit is made up of fanciful, conceptual, or microscopic practices, and its material components are banal (116). It’s a hyphenated practice, and rather than being a finished model, it is rather a general approach that emphasizes hybridity without determining what combination of elements constitutes that hybridity (116). It is, finally, “an invitation to practise, to share and to connect, but also to take the risk of comparison and to practise implicit and explicit criticism of each other’s practices and theories” (116).

Many of the ideas in that manifesto are reiterated throughout the remainder of the book; the manifesto, then, is a summary (of sorts) of what is coming. After the manifesto, Smith presents a 25-point extract from what I am taking to be an imaginary text (this book is essentially a compilation of imaginary texts) called “The Handbook of Drifting.” These 25 points describe the drift or dérive, the primary method of psychogeography, following the walking practices developed by the Situationists (a group led, sort of, by Guy Debord) in the 1950s. These points are also reiterated later in the book: like walking itself, which is an iterative activity (one footstep follows another), Mythogeography’s repetitions are an essential aspect of its form. Smith suggests that drifting is not a leisure activity, and that drifts should end abruptly, left “raw, amputated, ready to feed back into the next drift” (118). Drifters should begin with a theme of some kind (Smith provides a few examples). They should sensitize themselves to their activity and abandon rational way-finding in favour of instinct. “Allow the narrative of your walk to develop,” Smith advises, and as events and experiences collect, use them to “compose” the drift (119). Drifting is “a way to rewind, to review, to re-infuriate, to see as if for the first time all the things you already know, as good myth should help you to do” (119). Drifters should self-consciously play with their senses, watch for mistakes and decay in commercial or bureaucratic signage, watch for accidential architecture (such as pulpits or theatres), and explore ruins. Drifters should compile their own complex taxonomy of places (120). However, they should avoid art unless it has been damaged, and they should avoid shops, cinemas, and other common destinations in favour of public places “that are ‘hidden in plain sight’ and visited by few people,” particularly sites that are not accessible (120). A good drift doesn’t have a leader or a guide; rather, it is “led by its periphery” (120). Drifting is an activity for small groups (between two and seven people), and the members of the group should contact participants after the drift has finished with “fanciful maps,” images, cryptic games based on the drift’s findings (120). Documentation or mementoes of the activity, however, should contain provocations for another drift, rather than being straightforward, descriptive accounts (120). Smith suggests that drifters should displace their “erotic feelings for each other” onto the landscape (121), and yet they should also regard their dialogue while drifting as something precious (121). Listen carefully to strangers, Smith advises—something that his account of repeating Charles Hurst’s walk demonstrates. Ask strangers open questions and leave gaps and silences “so they speak of what they want to tell you” (121). Make monuments with mutable things, but also with mutable situations: the latter form of play is the most important and precious thing, since the opportunity rarely arises, although it is the purpose of the drift (121). Finally, take things along to leave behind, or carry chalk to write symbols (121). 

A series of end notes follows. They reflect or expand upon the previous sections of the book. For instance, Smith suggests that an interest in occult or esoteric knowledge can play a positive role in mythogeography, although “the fate of anglo-psychogeography” presents a caution—not because of its “dalliance with the occult,” but because the effect of that dalliance “has been to attach its dérive to literature” (129). (Such dalliances are apparently characteristic of the writing of psychogeographer Iain Sinclair, whose book Lights Out for the Territory ought to be on my reading list.) Smith also sets out to explain his use of the term “myth” in these notes. He definitely does not mean myth in an ideological sense. Instead, he suggests that myth is useful because of its irrationality, its repetition, and its celebration of excesses that signal life (131). Myth is “a performance of society-building, promising a performing of worlds without the disappointment of a resolution” (131). The kind of myth he advocates is a “limited myth” rather than an absolutist myth (132), and such limited myths are fragmentary and unstable:

Instead of regeneration or renewal, the myth of mythogeography is that of its own non-equilibrium, its temporary interruption of its own decay, and that both these instabilities, (of decay and interruption, and their temporariness) are necessary and desirable. (132)

To avoid “the attentions of an absolutist myth,” mythogeography must “act as if both the subject of itself and the act of criticism that it makes of itself contain reciprocally reacting catalysts” (132). “The trick of this reciprocal catalysis,” Smith writes,

is to make the temporary appear universal through the reciprocity of fragmentation and universality (like two facing mirrors generating an apparently infinite set of repetitions), but never completely observable (having no absolutely correct point of view), so that an act of calculation or imagination is always required to continue (but never complete) the reciprocal sequence: creativity (only at the very end of the process) replaces repetition, while the energy of criticism runs down. (132-33)

To be honest, I’m not sure what this means, but it has something to do with the way Smith values repetition in “contemporary philosophical walking,” such as Deidre Heddon’s re-walking of Mike Pearson’s autobiographical performance Bubbling Tom, or Esther Pilkington’s re-walking of Richard Long’s sculpture Crossing Stones. These are “touchstone of limited mythic creativity” (133).

The notion of limited myth is crucial to mythogeography. Limited myth “eradicates the mapping of ourselves by an external pattern, proposing instead, that the forgotten within, the absences, silences and Not I darknesses are the materials from which our maps can be constructed” (133). These materials, rather than the mythogeographer’s reflections, “trigger the non-equilibrium from which to make a presence of absences,” a non-equilibrium which is “a mark of life, not only in the biological sense that all human activity occurs far from thermodynamic equilibrium, but also in Gilles Deleuze’s sense of the ‘surplus value of destratification,’ the usable energy residual from a process; in other words, creativity” (133). Limited myth acts out a “vertiginous suspendedness,” a suspension over an abyss that is an excess of life (133), and in doing so it is disrupted, in a Brechtian sense, “but not yet revealing the process disrupted; it is a moment of forgetfulness in which only a gesture towards the non-mimetic shadow of what is forgotten briefly flickers before the catalyst retriggers the corporeal senses, and re-opens and unfolds the map of ourselves in the external world” (134). For Smith, it’s in the creases and foldings in that map—and I’m reminded once again of Deleuze’s book, The Fold—that “a damaged, mythic characterisation can be performed” (134). I’m not entirely sure what all of this means, although I can tell that this concept is crucial to mythogeography (I mean, it’s in the name itself, right?). What Smith is after is “[a] rhizomic reaching out for fingerholds on the edges of chaos” (there’s Deleuze and Guattari and A Thousand Plateaus again), a “disrupted myth” suspending “uncontrolled formlessness, chaos, orgy, darkness and water so they become culturally accessible, transferable and repeatable” (136). 

This is a lot to ask of something as simple as walking, but Smith finds in the practice of walking and “within this account of suspended excess” an “opportunity for a revival of a modest utopianism”:

The mythogeographical model for connecting such voids is the land of Cockaigne, a fantasy of superabundant economy with no aspiration to realise itself practically, and yet unable to fully divert the urge for change. It is just such an inversion of an ‘absent cause’; what, Frederic Jameson has argued, history has come to (not) be, that mythogeography now explores in forgotten gaps and voids and interconnecting tunnels, performing an anticipatory text, a series of ‘magic what ifs’ which it does not intend to realise; Cockaignes and détournements. This is not an escape from ideology, for there is none. A mythogeographical, limited myth needs to be able to work, not with a view to the triumph of the utopian over the ideological, but rather to creating a set of mobilities and motions that tend to the utopian, persuading Jameson’s uber-binary of utopia/ideology to operate like one of Levi-Strauss’s antinomies; not quite reconciled in myth, but reconfigured together as the moving parts of a damaged (by forgetting) practice. (136)

So the “modest utopianism” of limited myth is not an escape from ideology—there is no such escape—but instead a gesture towards the utopian that somehow folds these binary opposites (ideology and utopia) together. At least, that’s where I think Smith is going here: I would have to reread Jameson’s The Political Unconscious, I think, to really unpack what’s being argued in this paragraph. “There is a missing piece here—hope,” Smith concludes. “But we have gone as far as—probably further than—present mythogeographical research allows” (136). I wonder if this is an admission that, as a theoretical construction, limited myth might outstrip the possibilities of walking or drifting. I certainly don’t harbour any utopian fantasies about my own walking. Maybe Smith is arguing that, to some limited extent, I should.

A few pages on, Smith discusses another key term in mythogeography: the Spectacle (a word which is always capitalized). My sense is that this term is derived from Debord. The Spectacle is “a critique of the relations between people driven by the production and exchange of images, accelerated by a culture of visuality in which the image has replaced the commodity as the main object of desire” (138). Now, I’m a little confused: I thought that the Spectacle consisted of those relations, rather than of a critique of them; I will have to read Debord’s book to straighten out my confusion. “There is nothing ethereal or mystical about the operations of the Spectacle,” Smith continues:

They are the same relations of consumption as those of spectral finance capital with its addictive relationship to de-centred banking, out-sourcing and the general hollowing out of every available institution and organization. . . . Walking out on the Spectacle has nothing (yet) to do with hope. It is about being paranoid and ready. Learning to be cockroaches. Learning to create theatre in cracks in the pavement, parliaments in back rooms. Acting the aftermath of apocalypse now. (138)

The notion of paranoia returns later. What is clear, again, from this discussion is how much Smith believes walking (or perhaps drifting as a specific kind of walking) can accomplish.

There is a crossover between drifting and performance, Smith suggests. Performance—walking performance, I think, is what is meant here, although I could be wrong—is “a co-operative, but not collective, form of improvisation and ‘devising’”:

A facilitator (often under the guise of an auteur) constructs an orrery of narratives and images, a fluid map of certain, limited thematic trajectories. An anti-team of collaborators then responds to this provocation, restricting themselves to working within the terms of the orrery, but not in a connected collaboration. Instead, they allow their own making to spiral around (but within limits) in as subjective, instinctive and intuitive a manner as the limits allow. (The impulses and associations that fuel these makings will remain private to the individual makers, whose integrity is assured.) (141)

Then the facilitator (usually the facilitator) will construct a montage of those individual productions (141). “The different productions will ‘tell’ their stories at different speeds,” Smith writes. “These relations of different velocities constitute THE STORY” (141). These principles, he concludes, “can apply equally to the composition of a drift . . . as to performance or political intervention or R & D or whatever” (142). I find myself wondering if this description depicts the creative process of Wrights & Sites, and if that process is being held up as a potential model. 

Next comes a “Toolbag of Actions and Notions”—a long series of ideas to help readers come up with ways to begin their own drifts. For instance, one can choose a book from a library at random, then select a page and a word on that page, and then drift until one finds that word (or a word associated with it); then one can choose a second word and continue drifting, and so on (146). Or one can focus on grids: “Create a journey made from lines, vectors, boundaries, border, crossroads, centres, crash barriers, squares and plinths,” recording “the strategies of power and their fractures” as one encounters them (148). Another approach is something Smith calls “Gum Galaxy”: where the sidewalk is covered in discarded chewing gum, one can use chalk to connect the pieces of gum into constellations and then label them using Latin (or a made-up version of Latin) (148). Or one can try “Pilgrimages To A Future Self”: choose a site that represents where you are now, and another site that represents who you want to be, and then create a performance or walk that moves from the first to the second (154). As practical suggestions, the 20 pages of this toolbox are quite useful, and I can see readers of Mythogeography—particularly people who live in a city large enough to hold surprises—returning to them again and again for ideas about new ways to walk (or drift).

In the middle of that toolbox, though, there is an interpolated text by a fictional character, Norma Nomad, who responds to what has been discussed so far, presenting (or performing) a sort of auto-critique of Smith’s entire project in this book. Norma represents a different kind of walker from the drifter Smith is giving suggestions to: a more politically engaged and down-to-earth pedestrian.(Norma’s text is written quickly, she says, and is therefore filled with typographical errors; it is included in the book, she claims, because she bribed the printer.) She writes,

Perhaps if this book was written by women or more women then it might have more to do with most of the walking that goes on—the refugees, the water carriering. Or gong to the garden centre. Thye just boring going to the shops, gfoing to work, the people who have to that are ignored in this book. Now, ehen they begin to walk philosophically, then . . . they will put the deriving zombies in the shade! (156)

Norma seems to demand that history be taken seriously, although the history that interests her is the history (or more likely pseudo-history) of pirates (157). She ends with a call for walking (or mythogeography) to be more inclusive:

I’m not saying ours is the only way, I’m saying there should be room for all the different kinds and no one in mythogography should be snobbish about the different walkers—refugee walkers, queer walkers, street walkers, ‘walkers’ who are escorts, ‘walkers’ in shops, Dongas, ramblers even. . . . Let everyone in! Don’t let anything divide us, even our own stupidity. Nobody fits the pattern of patterns! The whole point is that walking is open to almost everyone. (157-58)

The position of this interruption within Smith’s toolbag for drifters makes me wonder how seriously we should take that toolbag, and to what extent Norma’s words are intended to undercut everything Smith has written in the book. This interruption is definitely an example of auto-critique, but how far should we take that auto-critique? Pretty far, I would think: later on, Smith notes that in many parts of the world, people walk out of necessity and are held in contempt as a result:

In this sense the dérive is an obscenity and a privilege. Philosophical walkers should always walk with extreme sensitivity to the feelings of others. And with an obligation, for they will never be able to walk comfortably until walking is a choice for everyone physically able to make that choice. Nor until those who are not physically able have, wherever possible, access to equivalent mobility. (200)

Moreover, when the toolbag includes suggestions like “Death Walks”—“Draw up the route to your burial or incinerations, along ways and through places that are important to you. It’s good for your health” (161)—how seriously should we take the suggestions it makes? I think the text here is performing the instability that, Smith argues, is an inherent part of mythogeography. Norma’s words aren’t the only time the text introduces a contradicting voice: later, during what is billed at the outset as an important theoretical text, “The Orrery,” the publisher interrupts, telling us that he hates this part of the text, and that the truth is that “there is no ‘mytho.’ And there is no ‘geography.’ The once cancels out the other. Two stones swapped” (182-83). 

From the toolbag, the text slides into theoretical fragments about mythogeography which echo and amplify what we have already read. For example: “Mythogeography does not create new objects (there are already enough objects: Arte Povera), it makes gaps, hybrids, intervals—it operates in holey space” (170). Or this statement on paranoia:

By cultivating a low level paranoia the explorer can develop a super-sensitivity to the textures, details, signage and symbols of the street. The paranoid walker over-interprets the street, countering ideology’s . . . effect of under-explanation. It is the reverse of the principle of Occam’s Razor. (178)

Smith also refers to “Kierkegaardian ‘dread’” as well, “a fear without cause” that “might also trigger anxieties for which there is no material cause, only virtual ones,” which leads to the conclusion that “paranoia is the whippet that chases ideology to its deepest tunnels” (178). But the mythogeographer also needs to cultivate “a complementary depressive consciousness . . . one of weaving and healing,” which sews together “segments, fragments and compartments,” and the “coruscating price to pay for this” is a future “constructed from threads of fakery, plagiarised diagrams and mistaken charts, the compartments are woven together with the thrill of simulation” (179). Footnotes here reference an essay on paranoia by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and Jacques Lacan’s use of knots—perhaps in an essay in Écrits (I’m not entirely sure). Smith also describes what he means by wormholes—“wrinkles in the fabric of space [that] bring far away places very close,” the way that we can imagine, while trying on clothing in a store, “the workshop of the child labourers who made the garment in your hand” (204). He also explains the term “holey spaces”: “unsurveilled or partially surveilled spaces, typically on the edges of cities (206). These repetitions are important, because they clarify points Smith made earlier; they are also, no doubt, performances of mythogeography as well.

“Walking is important as a form of activism,” Smith writes “Because it is an anachronism in many parts of the world (the adjective ‘pedestrian’ is often used to mean dull, old-fashioned), it has a certain purchase, a resistance to fashion” (198). The relationship between walking and mythogeography, he continues, is “entirely accidental,” although he also suggests that “[m]ythogeographical walking is an act of resistance to wayfinding” and that it is “a participatory, rather than immersive or distanced, flow state, in which self and world and time slide within each other. . . . Changes of step and rhythm effect changes of consciousness” (198). These contradictory statements once again, I would think, perform the instability and auto-critique that is built into mythogeography, something Smith more or less admits: “The mythogeographical dérive is a detour, a diversion from the functional journey. . . . In this sense play and irony are already built into the practice” (199).

Smith’s book doesn’t reach a conclusion. Instead, it ends with a series of lists of books and other texts about mythogeography and related topics. I think this anticlimax is another performance. This time, it’s a performance of the way Smith suggests a dérive ought to end: abruptly. Its unfinished nature, he contends, will lead to the need for another dérive (118).

I like the playfulness and performative quality of this book, but at the same time, I’m on a mission—today, to understand precisely what Smith means by “mythogeography”—and so I turned to his essay “Crab Walking and Mythogeography,” an exegesis of his performance texts The Crab Walks and Crab Walks Again. That essay presents his ideas about mythogeography in a more linear fashion. He begins autobiographically, noting that when he shifted from writing and making plays in traditional theatre spaces to creating site-specific performances, he dragged “the limitations of the theatre” along with him (81). He considered the landscape in which performances were staged to be a mere backdrop: “I had yet to understand that a site might—and might be encouraged to—perform,” he writes (81). The result, he continues, “was an aesthetic practice of walking”:

This walking began as an anti-theatrical act, and while elements of theatricality have resurfaced in its practice, that tension remains. And interdependency, too: for the site-based performances of Wrights & Sites revealed places to be as performed as the performances in them. This understanding—at first as a problem to be removed—would eventually inform the development of walking into something more tactical. (82)

Smith recalls moments during Wrights & Sites 1997 production The Quay Thing when 

the sites would perform at the expense of and despite the performance. It took a long time to realize that this was the performance. This was the specificity. And that the site-artist’s work was simply to provoke these specificities, to accelerate their decay, to destabilize their poise. And that we should not only make the performances that ‘performed’ us, not importing themes or fictions, but at most our associations, memories, misunderstandings: our mythogeographies just like those of our sites. (82)

“It was necessary, certainly for me, to be forced to move further from theatre before I could begin to grasp the theatricality of sites themselves,” Smith writes. This realization led him to the psychogeographic writing of Iain Sinclair, the walking performances of Mike Pearson, and the Situationist dérive, which he describes as “a spontaneous and playful travelling and research through cities, seeking out those spaces where ambiance resists the imperatives and spectacle of capital; seeking through a process of détournement (the redeployment of sclerotic art forms) to make ‘situations,’ locations where people can make experiments in new ways of urban living” (82-83).

The term “mythogeography” came from Wrights & Sites, and was a shorthand for a resistance “to the monocular-identity manufactured by Tourist Boards and Local Councils” (84). Mythogeography, he continues, is

a pseudo-discipline that equally values unbuilt proposals, murders, victims, lies and rumours, subjective associations, places of intense atmosphere, lost histories, unusual sightings, gossips, ghosts, diaphanous traces of the secrete state, reserve collections, library stacks, wormholes, old signage that has become hieroglyphic and the banal details of mass production as much as any official historiography. (84)

Smith says that he wanted to push the category further, both as a set of generalized principles and as a practice (85), and several books—including Stephen Graham’s The Gentle Art of Tramping, Geoffrey Murray’s The Gentle Art of Walking, and Arthur Machen’s The London Adventure or the Art of Wandering—were helpful in this project. He began to read scientific literature as well, something he had ignored in school (86), and that reading, I think, is the source of some of the statements in Mythogeography that I found hard to understand. Smith became increasingly aware of the different ways that walking is practiced by artists in many places; walking art, he notes, is an “eclectic practice, as likely to wander in from architecture, social activism or visual arts as from performance” (88). Smith was particularly inspired by the Situationists, “whose critiques of tourism and art have both philosophically denied legitimacy to and waved on a self-consciously aesthetic walking” (88). Many walking artists raid situationist terminology, using “drift” or “dérive” to describe exploratory walks, and “psychogeography” to talk about both the subconscious of the landscape and its mapping, although Smith notes that the terms “spectacle” and “the critique of everyday life” are rarely used (88). “Contemporary ‘drifters’—both solitary and in groups—may be sympathetic to much of the situationists’ social critique, but are nervous of their coruscating history of exclusionary antics,” Smith writes. “There is little enthusiasm for their revolutionary ‘situation’-making to which ‘drifts’ were intended to lead, nor for the situationists’ wider collective organizational aspirations” (88). 

Smith’s own theoretical project, as it has developed into mythogeography, is, he writes, 

an attempt to map the vicious monopolization of human possibilities described in the situationists’ critique of everyday life with exceptional, détourned, disrupted, increasingly patterned and emergent (rather than everyday) “tactics” necessary for the diffusion of that monopoly, seeking these from within (or not far from) the present range of walking and site-related aesthetic practice. (88)

He wants to address the disparity between “the theoretical hegemony of the situationists” and “the actual practices of contemporary walking artists” by “increasing the theoretical and technical ideas in orbit” (88). The point of a mythogeographical drift, he writes, is to set “different and contradictory elements in motion about each other in order to confront patterns of meaning usually invisible to physically static contemplation” (88). To do this, he continues, requires the use of autobiography: “the artist-walker must set self and route in motion through the shapes and the narratives of the landscape, each threatening the others with dissolution in the acceleration of their actions” (88). In the drift and “in the motion of mythogeographic theory, the subjective loses its authority, unleashing the everyday from its industrialization into eccentricity . . . releasing pleasure into a socialized ‘whirl’” (89). 

For Smith, The Crab Walks and Crab Steps Aside are examples of this approach. In those performances, he writes,

I set out to place the autobiographical in an instrumental role, as the emotional motor for destabilizing the assumed, as a diffusion, not for its own sake, but one that allowed me to dismantle certain narratives and ideas before an audience, and as a rhetoric for encouraging them to disrupt themselves and diffuse their own dismantling. The performances sought to challenge the authenticity of their own autobiographical voice. In both pieces I often say that I cannot remember things, that strong emotional memories evaporate in the face of their supposed sites, that what I felt most strongly mine came to feel alien and shared. (90)

His aim was to mythologize the autobiographical, he continues: “And not my own in particular, but anyone’s. To bring the autobiographical into a play of generalities” (90). 

Smith wants to explore patterns and fluctuations in patterns, and his scientific reading is a rich source of metaphors to describe that focus. For example, he describes his interest in changes that

involve very small transfers of energy, because there are patterns of information rather than force, just as off-course satellites with minimal propulsion resources have been successfully transferred from one orbit to another by “playing” their low “card” just at the point where the entanglement of extremely powerful gravitational forces will yield a disproportionate effect. It is mostly the understanding of the dynamic patterns at work that “causes” change. In order, then, for equivalent social patterns to be successfully provoked, it requires artists or anti-artists who are “informed” in the non-empirical patterns (basins) of attraction in their city or society and who are able to appropriately deploy the small transfers of energy to provoke the “sinking” of a basin or tunnelling into an existing basin necessary to trigger the city/system to change, particularly—to follow this model—when the tunnelling is to an attraction that cannot be easily satisfied. This is the return of a situationist strategy, a provocation of site working itself along the continuum of theatrical site-specificity to its most radical edge: goading the city (or rural system) into “performing itself.” (93)

I have to admit that I don’t fully understand this idea, but the advantage of the essay over the book is that Smith provides a full bibliography in the essay, so that it’s possible to read his sources in order to understand how those (metaphorical?) transfers of energy might work.

The destabilization or contortion of the self that is produced by mythogeography, Smith argues, can be playfully projected into a utopia:

The ruins of self evoke the possibilities of everything else—autobiography made mythical, made mythogeographical. Space, place, environment, route and way are not passive surfaces for traversal nor blank pages on which the active walker writes nor accomplished texts awaiting reading, but are active: both psychical and physical, but also something that is neither. They are “characters” that the “drifter” seeks to provoke into performances of themselves, through the rearrangement of signs, the placing of objects, the carrying of “burdens,” the leaving of messages, the re-constructing of rubbish-heaps: theatricalities that, in turn, theatricalize quotidian behaviours around them, re-performing space into something resistant to the intentions of its planners, designers and controllers. (98)

The playfulness involved in the mythogeographic drift is a provocation. “It sets off a political reaction: the a-functionality of play offers no ‘real’ threat to the functions of the space, but as the antithesis of these functions the managers of space often seem ‘forced’ to ‘take it seriously,’ to shadow the frivolity of the ‘player,’” Smith writes. “In doing so these controllers are forced to ‘play’ their roles in order to hang onto them; they speak their subtexts, expose their training, their orders, their own psychogeographies” (98-99). Here, as in Mythogeography, Smith expresses a belief in the political function of drifts and, by extension, walking performances. In both drifts and performances, he argues, participants need to take on leadership roles. The resulting “fraying of authority becomes, by necessity, exploratory, but is equally necessarily fraught with disturbance,” he writes. “Walking becomes disorienteering, its internal uncertainty offering, at worst, opportunities for a re-development of power geometries” (101). 

Smith emphasizes the role of play in mythogeography, and while reading his words I realized how my own walks are not playful. The histories to which I typically respond don’t allow for playfulness as an appropriate response. Nor does the difficulty of the land in which those walks take place. My walks are closer to the “gargantuan” solo walks of Long or Fulton or He Yun Chang. And yet I think I have something to learn from Smith’s work, and from his theorization of mythogeography. How can I create walks that are disorienteering, that provide opportunities for challenging geometries of power? Can long, solo, rural walks do those things? What political impact might such walks have? Can I theorize their potential effects? Or is Smith’s sense of what walking or drifting might accomplish too ambitious? I find myself drawn back to the long, rural walk with which Smith begins Mythogeography. What is the relationship between that walk and my own practice—and how might either relate to Smith’s theoretical framework? These are important questions, I think, and I anticipate that I will find myself writing about them later on in this project. It’s important that I’ve read these texts now, because I can start thinking about these questions and how to respond to them.

Works Cited

Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Trans. Fredy Perlman, Black & Red, 1983.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. U of Minnesota P, 1987.

Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English. Trans. Bruce Fink, Norton, 2006.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Cornell UP, 1982.

Smith, Phil. “Crab Walking and Mythogeography.” Walking, Writing and Performance: Autobiographical Texts by Deidre Heddon, Carl Lavery and Phil Smith. Ed. Roberta Mock, Intellect, 2009, pp. 81-114.

———. Mythogeography: A Guide to Walking Sideways. Triarchy, 2010.

2. Dylan A.T. Miner, Creating Aztlán: Chicano Art, Indigenous Sovereignty, and Lowriding Across Turtle Island

creating aztlan

This past semester, I took a graduate-level visual arts course called Group Studio. That course ended last week with a critique by the faculty in the Department of Visual Arts of my photographs of and text work about my walk to Wood Mountain. One faculty member suggested that when a settler walks, he or she is inevitably claiming territory that is rightly Indigenous. The argument, as I understand it, is that because walking is a way of moving slowly across the land, it is therefore equivalent to lowriding—either with lowrider cars or bicycles—which is, according to Dylan Miner, a way for Indigenous people to claim (or possibly reclaim) territory. For that reason, I decided I would take a look at Miner’s 2014 book Creating Aztlán: Chicano Art, Indigenous Sovereignty, and Lowriding Across Turtle Island to make sense of that critique and possibly formulate a response.

I must admit, I didn’t read Miner’s book carefully. Instead, I did what my PhD supervisors have suggested, and I “gutted” it: I read the introduction and conclusion, took a look at a review, skimmed the chapters, and looked up every mention of the word “lowriding” in the index. Nevertheless, I got a clear sense of how Miner uses that term. He equates migration, lowriding, and moving slowly across the landscape, and he argues that all of these are inherently Indigenous and central to his own methodology in the account of Chicano art as Indigenous sovereignty:

For many participants in lowrider culture, the process of lowriding engages traditional migration patterns, yet employs late-capitalist machinery to traverse colonized landscapes. While our ancestors moved slowly from one place to another, establishing deep roots along the way, contemporaneity and coloniality presuppose that we must hurriedly rush from place to place. Instead of hastening from one place to another, lowriding, as an Indigenous ontology, actively engages the process of slow-movement. Through this intentional slowness, lowriding seamlessly repositions us between various temporalities, moving among multiple spaces in and out of disparate social structures. Lowriding becomes methodology and framework as we investigate Aztlán and Chicano art, as well as migrate across Turtle Island or the Americas. (3)

Miner’s interest is primarily in his socially engaged art practice of building lowrider bicycles with Indigenous youth (the MacKenzie Art Gallery brought Miner to Regina for one of these projects in 2016). Those projects, he writes, constitute a collective confrontation with colonial power structures: by building lower bicycles with Indigenous youth, “we upheld Indigenous sovereignty in a profound way: we worked collectively and, in turn, built community” (5). These bikes, he continues, “materialized Indigenous knowledge in the present,” by combining “ancestral knowledge with contemporary technologies, concretizing Indigenous culture in the guise of lowrider bicycles” (6). 

Miner mentions lowrider cars only a couple of times in the book. But lowriding functions metaphorically in Creating Aztlán, I think, through the creation of the nexus of lowriding/migration/slowness as an Indigenous ontology and methodology. “Although created sometime in the late twentieth century, decades after lowrider cars,” Miner writes,

lowrider bicycles are the epitome of contemporary Indigenous movement. They are simple machines with two wheels. The wheels must be kept moving if the bike is to remain upright. Constant rotations of the wheels keep the rider in a stable and mobile position. When the wheels stop rotating, the bike becomes static and the rider will eventually fall to the ground. This could be read as an Indigenous story about the need to maintain equilibrium in the world. Unlike the desire of a traditional cyclist, whose hope it is to move as quickly as possible, the lowrider’s only goal is to move as slowly and as intentionally as viable. Lowriding is about moving through space, while being cognizant of the journey and migration itself. (23-24)

I’m not sure how his description of how a lowrider bicycle remains upright differs fundamentally from the way an ordinary bicycle works, except that the goal with a lowrider bicycle is apparently “to move as slowly and as intentionally” as possible—an intentionality that is apparently self-reflexive and that conflates the specific journey with the broader experience of migration. Such journeys or migrations are apparently circular, in both time and space, and related to story as a way for Indigenous peoples to “slowly and intimately relate to one another” (88). Later, Miner writes, “lowriding is about slow movement, in which the lowriders themselves get to know the space and move through it in intentional ways” (115); here, slowness is an essential part of coming to know the space through which the rider is moving. 

Lowriding, as Miner defines it, and walking clearly share a similar velocity: both are ways of moving through a space (whether urban or rural) slowly. However, I don’t see anywhere in Miner’s book where moving through territory is defined as claiming or reclaiming territory. Maybe I missed it. If I didn’t, then I’m not sure a critique of my walk to Wood Mountain as a colonial claiming of territory works if it is based in Miner’s literal or metaphorical discussions of lowriding, since that idea doesn’t appear to be in Miner’s book. It might appear in something else he’s written, but if it does, I can’t find it.

Lowriding (on bicycles or in cars) obviously shares a certain slowness with walking, but there are significant differences between those practices. Although Miner says he first encountered lowrider bicycles in rural Michigan when he was a child (5), I would think that as a mode of transportation lowrider bikes are primarily an urban phenomenon—at least in this province. Can one move through space slowly if one is travelling the kinds of distances between communities that exist in a place like Saskatchewan? Are the youth who built lowrider bicycles with Miner here in Regina really riding them outside of the city? Maybe they are. Nevertheless, on my walk to Wood Mountain I encountered only one cyclist, and he was riding a mountain bike (which is a practical way of dealing with the drifts of gravel one finds on grid roads).

Moreover, the bikes Miner built at with his participants in this city were meant to be looked at; they were colourful and incorporated Indigenous design elements, patterns, and references (photographs of those bicycles are available here). They are both a mode of transportation, a form of display, and an assertion of Indigeneity on multiple levels. Is that true of walking? It could be, if the walker, like the runner Brad “Caribou Legs” Firth, wore traditional regalia, but I would never do such a thing (it would be an obvious act of cultural appropriation). In fact, I cannot imagine anyone wanting to look at the dull-coloured, dirty walking clothes and Tilley hat I wear when I am walking. Everything about the walks I make is pragmatic and functional (the clothes I wear, the pack I carry); walking long distances in this place is impractical enough. In other words, when I walk there is no attempt at becoming visual spectacle, even though my presence surprises passing motorists. Besides, walking and cycling—even cycling on a lowrider bike—are distinctly different activities. Cycling—even on a lowrider bike—involves a degree of technological intervention that isn’t present in walking. (After all, people walked long before bicycles were invented.) 

It is true that part of the reason I choose to walk is as a way of getting to know the land, the space through which I am moving, but is that necessarily an assertion of sovereignty over that land? I don’t think so. I happened to have lunch with an Elder last week and I talked a little bit about walking to Wood Mountain and the notion that by walking I’m claiming ownership of the land. “No,” she replied, “the land is teaching you when you walk.” Besides, she continued, nobody ought to be claiming territory: the earth owns us, and we don’t own it. I do learn from the land when I walk: it teaches me about scale, about flat plains and hills, about wind and rain, about heat and cold and thirst. I met Dylan Miner when he was here, and I told him about the project I was then getting ready for: my walk in the Haldimand Tract. He thought it was a good idea, something that I should do. He didn’t accuse me of trying to claim that territory. I’m grateful for that response, which demonstrated an understanding of what I was trying to do in that project. I was deliberately not claiming territory: I was acknowledging the thefts of land that my settler predecessors had committed in that place. My PhD research has a similar motivation.

Miner’s use of lowriding as a conceptual framework in his book is interesting as a metaphor, and the equation he makes between slowness, migration, and coming to know the land is thought-provoking; although not all forms of slow movement are necessarily migration, slow movement is definitely one way of coming to understand the land. But I’m not sure one can use his writing as a way to critique walking. Walking and lowriding share a similar velocity, but there are significant differences between those practices, and ignoring those differences is, in my opinion, a mistake. And it leads to a larger question: is any engagement with land by a settler descendant—landscape painting or photography, sculptures about forests, writing about grasslands—necessarily a way to claim territory? If not, what is it about walking in particular that generates this political critique? That question remains unanswered; all I can say is, that critique isn’t articulated in Miner’s book.

Work Cited

Miner, Dylan A.T. Creating Aztlán: Chicano Art, Indigenous Sovereignty, and Lowriding Across Turtle Island, U of Arizona P, 2014.

Frenchmen’s Trail Walk, Day Five

I was humbled by my blisters twice yesterday. First, I couldn’t walk more than a couple of miles. And then, when we arrived at our destination, Judy, who trained as a nurse, taped the blisters for me. That was especially humbling, because after four days on the road, my feet–to be blunt–stink. I’m still hopeful that I’ll be able to hobble into Gravelbourg. We’ll see.

We had a communal supper last night, our first: pilgrims’ chicken, cooked by Dave, Madonna’s curried lentils, chili I threw together from dehydrated beans and fresh tomatoes. My favourite meals on the Camino were the ones we cooked together, and the same was true last night. We’d put together the gazebo that was in the back of Hugh’s truck, and we huddled together against the cold night. The full moon was red from the smoke in the air.

It was cold last night, colder than it was in Mortlach, but I was prepared: I wore all the clothes I have to bed. I cinched the bivvy sack tight and tried to find the sweet spot between hypothermia and asphyxiation. By morning, after vivid dreams that were more like hallucinations, I was erring on the side of hypothermia, sticking my face out of the bivvy to breathe the sweet, cold, damp air.

We’re eating breakfast together and I’m drinking perked coffee for the first time in decades. It’s not bad.

The plan–I hope it stays the plan–is to walk to the cathedral in Gravelbourg. That would make this a real pilgrimage: a destination pilgrimage, as Matthew would say, rather than a journey pilgrimage. That’s an important distinction.

Louise has been leading us in a smudge and prayers every morning before we set out. It helps to frame the journey as something sacred, an exercise of gratitude. For everything except blisters, I think.

Later: We arrived in Gravelbourg a little after one o’clock. We trudged down Main Street, past a group of motorcyclists who seemed to have come to town for the burger special at the bar, to the cathedral. There’s a quiet place around back, beneath some poplars, and Louise led us through a sharing circle there. Sharing circles always make me anxious; everyone else’s insights always seem so much more profound than mine. I said I’d been thinking about my blisters–they’re bleeding now–and whether I can be grateful for them. I said I think I can, because they teach me humility; they draw my attention to my human frailty. I thought this walk would be easy, having completed that arduous journey to Wood Mountain two weeks ago. That was overconfidence, pride. My blisters made me ask for help on this walk. That’s something I have trouble doing. So they humbled me; they didn’t humiliate me. There’s a difference.

The cathedral bells are ringing in our honour. In a few minutes, we’ll have a tour of the cathedral, and then a barbecue at the home of Don’s sister and brother-in-law. And then we’ll go our separate ways. Our community is temporary, but that doesn’t make it any less profound.

Frenchmen’s Trail Walk, Day Four

A good night’s sleep can do marvellous things. Last night, I was sure I’d be riding in the truck today. I could hardly put any weight on my blistered foot. This morning, the blisters are still there, but after I put on my shoes and socks, I found I was walking almost normally. So I’m going to start walking today. The first hour or so we’ll be walking beside the Wood River, through a rare grove of trees. I wouldn’t want to miss that.

Later: We were short a driver for one of the support vehicles, so Hugh, our leader, decided to drive this morning. That was fine when we were on a road, but where we had to turn to follow the river, it became a problem, because only Hugh knows the way, so I volunteered to take the wheel. I think it’s my turn to be part of what makes this walk possible, instead of relying on others to carry the burden. Plus, my blister is quite sore. Altruism meets self-interest, I suppose.

Later: Driving the support vehicle is dull work. The books I brought are back at my car. I feel separated from the group, who area half mile or so behind me. They’re chatting and walking and I’m not. I’m sitting in the truck, listening to the wind and the cows and the crickets and smelling the smoke from the wildfires further west. There are advantages, though. I can charge my phone, and write this blog post. And, I should add, rest my blistered feet.

I look as if I’ve been walking: my clothes and shoes are dusty. I’m saving my clean socks for our supper in Gravelbourg, so I smell like I’ve been walking, too. I hope I’m the only one who’s noticed.

Later: We ate lunch at a farmyard that was one of the original stops on the Frenchmen’s Trail. I’d been feeling separated from the group, but the lunch was communal, with everyone sharing what they had. A community develops quickly on these walks. That was my experience last year, and it’s the same this year.

In a couple of miles we’ll be on Highway 58, heading south into Gravelbourg. I worry about so many people walking on the shoulder of the highway, but the support vehicles will help to warn drivers to slow down.

Later: Connie rode with me this afternoon, so I had company. That was good. It’s very smoky and windy. At lunch I thought I could smell roasting coffee; it was the smoke, blown east on the wind. So many fires burning in B.C.; it breaks my heart thinking about them, and the reason the forests are burning.

Later: We’ve turned a farmer’s yard into a shantytown for the night. Soon we’ll start cooking supper. The walkers are hungry. And thirsty.

I’ve never been sidelined by blisters before, and it’s been a humbling experience. At least I was able to do something productive. That helps take away some of the sting. Connie gave me some Compeed for my blisters, and I’m hoping that, reinforced with tape, they’ll stay on until the end of tomorrow’s six-mile plod into Gravelbourg. That’s my goal: to finish this pilgrimage on foot.

Frenchmen’s Trail Walk, Day Three

I slept on a high-jump mat in a former grade seven classroom last night, and surprisingly I didn’t dream about being 12 years old. We’re living in luxury here: there’s a kitchen and tables and chairs, and running cold water, although you can’t drink it. Most of us had showers, but I couldn’t face a cold shower, so I’m still grimy with dust and sweat and sunscreen. Not enough sunscreen: I’m turning brown and my dermatologist would be unhappy with me.

It doesn’t take long to start missing ordinary things: running water, chairs, a flush toilet instead of a hastily dug hole behind one bushes (if you’re lucky enough to find some bushes). I’m sure people get used to sleeping rough, but it’s a hard adjustment. I was grateful to sleep inside last night, partly because I’d made friends with a big dog and I’m sure he would’ve come to visit me in the bivvy sack in the night.

Today our destination is Shamrock Regional Park, on the Wood River. It’s our longest walk, and it’s going to be hot: up to 35 degrees. Wish us luck.

Later: It’s noon and we’re stopping for a snack and some water. The water I’m carrying is already hot. The road we’re walking on is soft dirt and my blisters appreciate the fact that I’m not walking over stones. Here are wisps of cirrus clouds in the sky, but they have no effect on the pitiless sun. We’ve walked eight or nine kilometres, and we’re not yet at the halfway point.

Later: It is hot, and my blistered feet hurt. I’m starting to hobble, like the day I walked to Limerick. We’re having another break, sitting beside a gravelled road and a field of barley. I’m worried about heat exhaustion, not just for myself, but for all of us.

Later: Because of the heat, we cut our walk short today–only 20 kilometres, according to my Fitbit. That’s okay: we’re at the park where we’re staying tonight, and everybody is fine, more or less. There’s even a canteen here, so my cheeseburger tour of southwestern Saskatchewan may continue tonight. Tomorrow is supposed to be hot again, but the plan is for a shorter walk, so we’ll be fine. I hope.

Frenchmen’s Trail Walk, Day Two

Last night, we did all the things solo walkers can’t (or don’t usually). There was cold beer. Dave brought his guitar, and we sang old folk songs. I didn’t know that Matthew could play, but when Dave went to cook his supper, Matthew took over as choir leader. I went to bed when it got dark, and as I unrolled my bivvy sack, I found myself singing Merle Haggard songs to myself.

It was much warmer last night, and I slept well, maybe because I was so tired. This morning, my feet feel much better. I ate porridge and drank coffee, and Matthew shared his fried eggs with me. We’ll be on the road soon. Today, two women are driving out from Regina to join us, so we’ll be quite a large group.

Later: We walked on grid roads this morning, but for the past three hours we’ve been walking over pasture. Most of the time, we’ve been walking on native grassland, which is lovely, but also dangerous: one of our party, Karen, stepped in a badger hole. No harm was done, but that’s how ankles get broken, and it would be a long way to carry someone to safety. Karen is light enough that we could easily get her to safety, but I’m afraid that if I got hurt I’d have to wait for the rancher and a bone-crunching ride on a quad out to the road.

I grew a blister on the sole of my right foot today, and it broke a couple of miles back. Ow. I’m on the downward side of the pain curve now, though, and I’m confident it’ll be fine to walk on tomorrow.

Right now we’re resting under shady trees at Marlatt Springs, one of the stops on the original Frenchmen’s Trail. There’s a cool breeze even though it’s a warm day. We’re eating snacks and drinking water, getting ready for the last two hours of walking. A Swainson’s hawk is screaming overhead. It’s a lovely place to stop.

When we get to Courval, we’re going to stop at the cathedral, then get the vehicles and drive into Coderre, where we’ll have supper and spend the night in the community centre. I’m looking forward to a cold beer. Tomorrow we’ll return to Courval and start walking again.

Later: We’re in Coderre. Some of us are having a shower. Some are cooking dinner. Some of us are in the hotel, enjoying a well-earned beverage. Today was a long walk; tomorrow will be longer, and there’ll be no cold beer at the end of it. Unless we’re very lucky.

Frenchmen’s Trail Walk, Day One

We camped at the golf course in Mortlach last night. It was cold. I broke the half-zipper on my ultra-light, high-tech sleeping bag, which didn’t help. I’m not sure if the manufacturer traded robustness for weight, or if the bag was designed for a slim-hipped youth rather than a man of my carriage. And I could’ve used a winter hat–against the draft through the opening of my bivouac sack–never forget a warm hat for cold nights. I slept poorly, and the half dozen freight trains that passed on the main CP line 100 metres away didn’t help. I’ll be tired today, but that means I’ll sleep better tonight.

A group of us are walking the Frenchmen’s Trail. It’s the route settlers from Quebec took, from he railway station in Mortlach to heir homesteads near Gravelbourg. The walk is organized by Hugh Henry, who put together last year’s walk on the Battleford Trail. These walks are a way to experience the history of this place in a visceral way, with our bodies. And it’s fun to walk with other people. The walk to Wood Mountain was isolated in comparison. Solo walks are that way.

Yesterday we toured the museum in Mortlach, and then we drove out to look at a couple of archaeological sites. We at dinner together in town. The restaurant, Franklyn’s, apparently makes real English fish and chips with mushy peas, and I’d like to return to give that a try.

We’re still getting ready for the day. There’s breakfast in town, but Matthew brought bagels from Montreal, and that’s a rare treat. Today’s walk is 25 kilometres, and I’m looking forward to it.

Later: It’s lunch time. We’re 10 kilometres in, and so far all is well, although the shoes I’m trying out instead of my heavy and hot (and therefore sweaty) boots could be more supportive. There’s been a lot of harvest-related traffic on the road, although of course I didn’t think to take a picture of one of the combines.

Later: After walking some 25 kilometres, we arrived at our campsite: an abandoned farmyard. Everyone is tired. I’ve been wearing different shoes and insoles, and my feet are exhausted. But it was quite a day of walking: through Nature Conservancy pastures and along the original path of the Frenchmen’s Trail. Usually we walk on grid roads that roughly parallel the route of the trail, because much of its path has been cultivated and is on private land, so to walk in the ruts of the trail itself is unusual and special.

Now it’s time to cook some supper and rest my feet.

P.S. There was no cell service last night, so I’m posting this blog this morning.

Thinking About Boots


Since I finished Planetwalker, I’ve been thinking about boots. You see, John Francis started on his long walk across the U.S. more than 30 years ago, and footwear was different then. Francis wore heavy leather boots, the kind that, today, you’d consider old-fashioned. Now if you wear boots when you walk–and a lot of people prefer shoes–they’re probably lightweight, with GoreTex uppers and one-piece soles.

Heavy leather boots are, well, heavy. That makes them tiring to wear when you’re walking long distances. But they have advantages over fabric boots. They last a long time: I bought a pair when I was 17, and I was still wearing them 20 years later. They last that long because you can get them fixed: when the heels or soles wear out, a cobbler can replace them. That’s not the case with fabric boots. When the heels wear down, you have to buy a whole new pair.

When Francis walked across the U.S., he would stop and get his boots repaired when they needed it. He even carried spare Vibram heels with him, just in case a small-town cobbler didn’t have the right ones in stock. Two things about that are striking. First, 30 years ago, people still got their shoes fixed, because their shoes were designed to be fixable, and second, it wasn’t unusual to find a shoe-repair shop, even in a small town. Today, everything’s different. Shoes and boots are more likely to be designed to be disposable now. So if Francis were to walk across the U.S. today, he’d be replacing his boots every thousand miles, instead of repairing them.

We’ve gained something with lighter footwear designs: they’re more comfortable and not as hot. But we’ve lost something, too. Sometimes I wish I had the old-fashioned kind of boots. After all, isn’t it better to fix something instead of throwing it away?

Across the Moon: Two Unprepared Brothers Traverse Iceland on Foot, by Jamie Bowlby-Whiting, and Walking and Trekking in Iceland, by Paddy Dillon

I’ve been watching a lot of Icelandic TV series on Netflix lately. And as a result, I’ve become interested in the landscape of that fragment of Europe sitting in the North Atlantic: the barren hills, the glaciers, the stark mountains. Would it be possible to walk there, I wondered? To find out, I ordered two books on the subject: Jamie Bowlby-Whiting’s first person account of crossing Iceland from south to north on foot with his brother Elliott, Across the Moon: Two Unprepared Brothers Traverse Iceland on Foot, and a guide to walking in Iceland, written by Paddy Dillon and published by Cicerone.


The subtitle of Bowlby-Whiting’s book tells most of the story: neither he nor his brother had any experience hiking before they attempted their walk across Iceland’s bleak and dangerous mountains. Their gear was useless, they weren’t physically up to hiking 25 or 30 kilometres per day while carrying 30 kilograms of gear (and not many people are–myself included, as I discovered in Ontario two years ago), and their only map covered just a fraction of their route. Because they weren’t prepared, they made many mistakes. They tried heading directly north, using a compass, and as a result they found their way blocked by raging glacial rivers which they had to wade across. Their packs were too heavy, so they got rid of most of their food; they ended up living on chocolate and uncooked ramen noodles for the remainder of their trip. Nothing cooperated: not the terrain, not the weather. A nearby volcano was threatening to erupt, and everyone told them they shouldn’t be walking near it. And yet they somehow managed to complete their journey. They were lucky, I think, because things could easily have gone very wrong for them. Well, even more wrong.

Across the Moon is a self-published book, and although I typically don’t bother to read anything that couldn’t find a regular publisher, I’m glad I made an exception this time. Bowlby-Whiting is an engaging narrator, frank about his mistakes and the liberties he takes with the truth early in the book. I like the book’s structure as well: reflective chapters about Bowlby-Whiting’s life and his relationship with his brother alternate with chapters about the walk itself. It’s a fun read.

And yet, I can’t believe the two brothers attempted this hike, given their experience and their equipment. Let me give you an example. Bowlby-Whiting always took off his shoes while wading through those glacial torrents. His brother Elliott did not. Now, everything I’ve read about fording rivers has said that it’s a terrible idea to do it without footwear: rocks can be sharp or slippery and it’s easier to fall when you’re barefoot. In his book on walking in Iceland, Paddy Dillon suggests carrying a pair of Crocs for river crossings (and as camp shoes). So does Justin Lichter, the author of Trail Tested: A Thru-Hiker’s Guide to Ultralight Hiking and Backpacking. “If the ford is tough then do not go barefoot!” Lichter says. “If the river is really gentle wear shoes when fording a river. They help with traction and protect your feet in case there are jagged rocks in the water.” So whether the ford is tough or not, you protect your feet, according to Lichter.

But wearing shoes while crossing those rivers didn’t help Elliott in the end. His shoes were cheap, you see, and they shrank and twisted as they dried. He couldn’t wear them afterwards and ended up walking the final 200 kilometres with flip-flops taped to his feet. I can’t imagine that. The moral of the story: don’t buy cheap shoes, and always carry a pair of decent lightweight sandals.

Flip-flops. I remember seeing a young Canadian walking the Camino wearing flip-flops and carrying a hockey duffel bag instead of a backpack. He was from Kelowna, I think. Everyone has their own way, I guess. And the Bowlby-Whitings managed to complete a trek I’d never attempt, even with preparation and decent gear. So who am I to say?


Walking and Trekking in Iceland is a completely different kind of book. In fact, it’s the kind of book the brothers might’ve considered consulting before setting out on their trek. Dillon describes both day-hikes and multi-day treks in different parts of the island. He also explains important stuff about Iceland that foreigners might not know–like how to buy topographical maps of the island, how to get access to private mountain huts, how the country’s bus service works, and when to go if you’re thinking about a walking holiday there. (August is busy and before June it’s too cold.) It’s the kind of book I’d have in a Ziplock bag in my coat pocket or at the top of my backpack if I were walking in Iceland, the kind of book one could use to plan a walking holiday in that country.

So read Across the Moon for a story about what not to do, one that luckily has a happy ending, and read Walking and Trekking in Iceland if you find yourself thinking about visiting that country.


Walking to Work at Minus 39 Degrees


What’s it like walking five kilometres to work when the windchill is minus 39 degrees? Surprisingly warm, as it turned out. This morning, I must’ve been wearing one layer too many, because I was quite perspired by the time I got to my office. Even my hands were sweaty in my mitts.

My twin concessions to the cold were to pull my balaclava up over the end of my nose (which meant removing my glasses, which would’ve otherwise fogged up and frosted over), and to pull up the hood of my light gore-tex windbreaker. Perhaps it was the hood, but I was a lot warmer today than I was yesterday, when the mercury was a good 10 or 15 degrees higher.

I wonder if the hysteria about the cold–the endless extreme cold warnings on the radio, for example–is necessary. Of course, if you don’t have a place to live, these temperatures could easily be deadly. But for most of us, going outside needn’t present any insurmountable difficulties–as long as we dress for the cold. And if that means having to cover up exposed skin to avoid frostbite, well, that’s what it means. We live in this climate and we have to come to terms with that fact, don’t we?